The Oregon Coast Aquarium is saddened to announce the passing of Judge, our most senior sea otter. Judge solidified his place in the hearts of many since his rescue from Pacific Grove, California, where he was found stranded. Just a small pup, Judge was taken to Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) for care and rehabilitation and was released soon afterward—but that was far from the last time MBA staff would lay eyes on him.
Judge was the very first sea otter to participate in MBA’s sea otter surrogate mother program. In this program, MBA facilitates the matching of orphaned pups with the MBA’s permanent female residents. The “surrogate mothers” teach the stranded pups how to care for themselves, which ideally reduces human-contact and increases the odds of a successful release.
When Judge completed the program, MBA staff released him back into the wild. Not long after his release, Judge was spotted in Monterey Bay interacting with humans in search of food. After seven more failed releases, wildlife professionals deemed the human-friendly sea otter non-releasable. Although the sea otter surrogate mother program has proved successful for hundreds of otters since, the multiple failed release attempts for Judge demonstrated that he would be safer under human care. The Oregon Coast Aquarium then welcomed Judge to its family in December 2003.
Thus began Judge’s enduring legacy as the charismatic sea otter who loved human interaction, whether that be playing hide-and-seek with visitors or floating by the glass windows of his exhibit to people watch. It was this friendly demeanor along with his strikingly well-kept fur coat—Judge was a meticulous groomer—that cemented Judge as the fluffy face of the Aquarium’s 2013 ad-campaign.
For many years, Judge reigned as “top otter” at the Aquarium. His feisty attitude and insatiable hunger allowed only the most advanced mammalogists to train him. Assistant Curator of Mammals, Brittany Blades, recalls fondly that “Judge would always make a low wailing sound when staff were around. All the mammalogists joked that this sound was him serenading us. We would sing back at him to guide him into sea otter holding.”
Judge mellowed significantly with age, and in the last few years, he transitioned to be the easiest sea otter to work with. Blades explained that Judge relinquished his territory in the exhibit, and instead focused on engaging with the mammalogists. “He actually became a great teacher for new mammal staff, as we were able to do many tough husbandry tasks with him, like voluntary injections and nasal inspections.”
One of the Aquarium’s newest marine mammalogists, Megan Pros, said that Judge will always hold a special place in her heart. “I remember seeing Judge when I first visited the Oregon Coast Aquarium as a guest back in 2012. Then, as a volunteer, he was always my favorite sea otter to interact with through the exhibit windows,” Pros explained. “It seemed fitting that when I started as a full-time mammologist here, Judge would be the first mammal that I would ever train.”
Judge was an important ambassador for otters in the Pacific Northwest. He was one of the Aquarium’s four rescued males that comprised the largest group of permanent, resident sea otters in Oregon. Southern sea otters were once abundant along the Oregon Coast, perfectly at home in the formerly extensive kelp forests offshore. After being decimated by fur traders in the 1900s, sea otters were slow to recover, and the kelp forests have since dwindled to fragments. Sea otters are considered extinct off Oregon’s coast and are listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
At 17 years old, Judge passed due to illnesses associated with older age, including pneumonia and arthritis. The typical lifespan for a sea otter in captivity is 15 years. The Oregon Coast Aquarium mourns his loss while fondly remembering him doing what sea otters do best: napping, romping with his otter companions, and eating plenty of clams.
Information and photos provided by OCA